“Environment, Health and Happiness” by Frank Bracho

Frank Bracho
“Environment, Health and Happiness” by Frank Bracho, former Ambassador of Venezuela to India, ecologist and author, former jurist of the Right Livelihood Award. Listen to the audio file in English or audio file in Spanish. Read the original Spanish presentation.

[English version of his presentation at the First Global PROUT Conference in Venezuela, “Building a Solidarity Economy based on Ethics and Ecology”, July 7-9, 2011, Caracas]

Good morning to all.

Chunikai, chunikai, chunikai
! This is a greeting of the indigenous Achaguas Arawak culture, their usual greeting that means “health and happiness,” two in one! It says much of what I am going to speak about in the subject today, “Environment, Health and Happiness,” and it provides a good key from the indigenous perspective. This is not the only indigenous culture that uses the concept of happiness in their customary greetings. Later I will quote from a few more of the cultures that do this.

On the subject of happiness, I am pleased that it forms part of the background of the values of this very interesting conference. I feel so privileged to be here, amid so many like-minded people talking about alternative proposals and values, I really feel at home. Obviously this cardinal value of happiness plays a profound role in human yearning. Not only these days, but ever since it can be remembered, in one way or another happiness has been regarded as the pinnacle of human realization under different names and meanings.

In the United Nations, on the occasion of the Millennium Summit in the year 2000, which brought together many heads of state from around the globe, the then Secretary General Mr. Kofi Annan presented the results of a Gallup International survey, which at that time was the largest international survey that had ever been done. It was conducted in about 80 countries and it asked people what was the most important thing in life. The most common response was: “to be healthy and have a happy family.” I remind you of the wisdom of the Achaguas, who were right on target! This should not be surprising. Why? Because, as in the case of the Achaguas Arawaks, it is a wisdom that from a mere microcosm became a universal wisdom! For human beings, their nature, their existential mission and their yearning for life.

In addition, even at political and social levels, happiness has always been on the agenda. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there used to be a lot of talk about happiness as a sort of political goal for societies. It was a benchmark, as a synonym for stability, prosperity and peace. Simon Bolivar, for example, spoke about it quite a lot. The founding fathers, the framers of the new republics in the Americas, talked about it a lot. Bolivar said that “the best social and economic system is that which guarantees the greatest amount of social happiness.” This has been quoted a lot in Venezuela in recent years. Further north, in the United States, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin also spoke these words. In the Declaration of Independence of the United States, the key goals of the new society, of the new republic, were “the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.” Of course these two statesmen and many others who framed the U.S. founding documents interacted a lot with the local Iroquois indigenous culture and were greatly enriched by their ideas and way of life. They put much emphasis on happiness and put it into practice concretely in their everyday life.

However today the concept of happiness has been appropriated by the consumer society. Sometimes we see ads that tell us that a particular soft drink, I will not mention the name, is “Open happiness!” On the other hand we still see people in Venezuela who say, “I’m happy as a clam.” What will be the most correct option? We will try to expand on this during this talk.

Beyond the political preoccupation with the times of independence that has been revived today, some countries have attempted to put happiness at the center of their nation’s priorities. The Gross National Product (GNP) is the indicator that most economists have imposed as a universal reference for prosperity and wellbeing. It is a great mistake I think, because the Gross National Product is really quite ignorant! Economists dedicate themselves exclusively to measuring the monetary value of the goods and services produced within a country, without noticing whether they are good or bad, whether they destroy nature, endanger health, etc.! According to the GNP, a person with terminal cancer, who is getting divorced, paying a lot of money for lawyers and liquidating assets is an excellent subject for the GNP, because they are contributing greatly to the consumption and sales of medicines, to the income of lawyers, etc. Please realize how absurd this is! And this is just a small example.

Obviously the fact that political leaders try to bring happiness back to the national agenda as they did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries means that somehow we have not been satisfied with all the material prosperity, destruction, inequality and unsustainable ways. Deep inside we know that something more is required, a much more profound agenda, for the pursuit of happiness.

In Latin America this agenda has reemerged recently thanks to indigenous proposals such as the concept of “living well”, which embraces the theme of happiness too. I also have had the privilege of attending a fascinating conference on the subject with Buddhists in Asia. Buddhists have always worked a lot with this theme. In particular I attended a meeting in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom, where the king declared that “more important than the GNP is the Gross National Happiness.” This is very typical for Buddhists; a Buddhist would not be surprised by this, but many Westerners were. This was said by the King of Bhutan, and as the king is the law, everyone in Bhutan began to work hard to accomplish his idea, and there was a lot of national interest in this proposal.

This is very normal for a Buddhist, but the Bhutanese were amazed by how many other people approached them to learn more. From all around the world they were contacted by magazines and newspapers, asking, “What do you mean by this and how could Bhutan achieve it? What are you going to do?” The king then called for a meeting with his friends from all over the world to help tiny Bhutan set up a kind of alternative to the GNP, Gross National Happiness. Bhutan ended up going even further, because its proposal involved directly giving priority to indicators of happiness over the indicators of the GNP, which are of a monetary nature.

Bhutan is not the only country today where this is being attempted. Among other countries that have taken this seriously is Great Britain. At regional and state levels there are some accounts that talk explicitly about how to achieve happiness, making it the focus and even subordinating economic values to these indicators.

And this is part of the personal campaign that we have taken on to promote the theme of happiness, asking: “How can this take shape in practice?” “What would make it palatable?” Because we need to influence public policy and allocate an appropriate amount of resources.

In this long journey I have allowed myself to make a personal synthesis of the concept of happiness, because as I said, there are so many distinct ways to talk about it, even though the essence is clear to everyone. It is a synthesis that would include everything that is being talked about on an international level and all the accumulated wisdom of the ancestors. It reads: “Happiness can be understood as a profound state of wellbeing and satisfaction/contentment that is based on our natural identity.”

This definition would have to be refined a little more to make it more operational and to make it “palatable.” Let’s start with the last part of the definition, “based on our natural identity.” What would be the natural identity? Well, human beings clearly have a universal agreement that we are both matter and spirit, body and soul. Moving forward from there, whatever one might call it, to whatever religion they might or might not belong to, whether believers or nonbelievers, this is all up to the individual. But we can say that within this definition there is a universal consensus, meaning that this natural essence has to be acknowledged with happiness: be based on it, be guided towards what it needs, towards what it seeks to perform. Essentially, the definition of happiness would have to somehow meet, to serve in some way, both the needs of the body or matter, and the needs of the spirit!

With this perspective, we see two aspects of the previous definition: “deep state of well being and satisfaction/contentment.” This involves two dimensions: “wellbeing” on one side and “satisfaction/contentment” on the other.

We think that the concept of “welfare” applies mostly to the aspect of the body, to the most material part and we associate it a lot with health. Why? Because according to the World Health Organization, the latter [health] is defined as “a state of wellbeing” – precisely – “physical, mental and social.” Note that although this definition places too much emphasis on something that we understand as primarily material or physical, it also refers to the mental and the social. Therefore, the physical can in no way be separated from the mental or spiritual; it is not even separated in this definition of the World Health Organization.

And the other part of the definition, “contentment and satisfaction”, is better ascribed to the spirit, the soul, the subtlest part of the body, which is also, incidentally, the most important part of our being. With this I think there is also a universal agreement. Including in this conference, in which there has been much talk of spirituality as a core, because it is indeed at the center of our being, our natural essence. And the most subtle aspect is the most powerful, because, contrary to what they have taught us, “the unseen is more important than what is seen, and the subtle is more important than the crude.” I could also talk about this much more.

What implications would such a definition have for operational purposes? I also have a concrete proposal. Regarding the dimension of wellness and health, the first part, which is aimed at the most material aspect of our being, the physical, according to the UN definition, we cannot be healthy if we do not have secure provisions of food. Here we have the first key indicator, which is, of course, a healthy diet. The delicious food that has been served here at this conference is a good guideline. I am one of the co-authors of the natural food cookbook The Guide to Good Eating, which is the best-selling health food cookbook in Venezuela. It was a grant proposal and comes highly recommended, and is known by a few of you, I’m sure. Food, then, is the first indicator.

Housing is another indicator. We cannot be healthy if we do not have adequate housing, including an adequate habitat, which is a broader concept than housing, along with clothing and exercise. Affection and protection are the most useful aspects of the definition of health, pertaining to mental and social issues, including community affection and protection.

But we cannot be healthy if we do not have a healthy environment. There can be no health if there is no environment. The environment is an intrinsic part of our being, not something external. For many indigenous cultures the word “environment” did not exist as a separate word. We are the environment, we are Pachamama [Mother Nature]. And from there begins the return path home. We have to rescue this identity, that the environment is a part of us. We are water, 80 percent water. We replicate the identity of the Earth’s surface, which has almost the same proportion of water. By the way, Planet Earth should really be called Planet Water, since it covers much more of the surface, but those of the land won in another vain anthropocentric victory.

With all of these indicators we would then be able to address the aspect of wellbeing, the greatest element of health. Hopefully this will be incorporated, with sufficient priority and attention, into the national audits, and adopted as the prime indicator. GNP should be subordinate to it, and it should be well-monitored and receive a sufficient allocation of resources. This would have many implications for public policy and could be seen as something serious.

Finally, the dimension of “satisfaction/contentment,” the most subtle aspect of the definition, the part most directed to the soul and spirit, cannot be achieved if we do not address key indicators such as the following: wisdom. There cannot be satisfaction and contentment if we are not wise enough to live life well. We do not become more when we have more, we become more when we are more. Having is one thing, which has to do with what is transient and ephemeral, while being is permanent and transcendent. Wisdom is necessary to understand this. But also love (something important), compassion (respect for all life) and feeling useful.

In the afternoon workshop there will be some books that have contributed to these topics: natural living, food, agriculture, natural agriculture for healthy harvests, good production and good marketing. The first book on natural, organic agriculture in Venezuela is ours, from the group that I work with. I also have a book called Pollution, Oil, and Globalization, another pressing issue that is important and fundamental to the national agenda. I am referring to the pollution of the planet and of the water. Petroleum and petrochemical industries are the number one polluters of water worldwide. Venezuelans have a well-known characteristic called “oil-addiction.” Few dare to talk about it in this country, either for lack of awareness or because of vested interests, in what has become a great omission created by the government and society. When will we Venezuelans assume our responsibility to make a real shift to a post-petroleum society that uses alternative and renewable energy?

Thank you very much.

[Translated by Spencer Bailey]
Panel 2 questions and answers.